Circumcision Exposed: Rethinking a Medical and Cultural Tradition

Author: Billy Ray Boyd

Circumcision Exposed: Rethinking a Medical and Cultural Tradition. By Billy Ray Boyd. Freedom, California: The Crossing Press, 1998. 800-777-1048. Review by J. Steven Svoboda.

Billy Ray Boyd has recently finished rewriting and updating his popular book, originally titled Circumcision: What It Does and now retitled Circumcision Exposed. Crossing Press has given the work an attractive presentation (the high quality drawings deserve a special acknowledgement) and has apparently committed to working to find the book a broader audience.

I wish the best to Boyd, a personal friend of mine, and to his book. He has drawn together a broad range of inspiration and information, ranging from personal spiritual contexts and New Age insights to little known historical facts such as information on Nineteenth Century Jewish opponents of circumcision. The collection of information on legal awards in circumcision cases is useful. And the list of parallels between circumcision and female genital mutilation on page 43, which a footnote tells us is adapted from a flyer created by the NOHARMM organization, is extremely well conceived and presented. Boyd moves smoothly from subject to subject, often sketching only the outlines of an issue so as to allow readers to fill in the colors for themselves.

At the same time, the book’s very strengths also contribute to some of its most frustrating aspects. While I admire Boyd’s creative and eclectic mind, I also longed sometimes for a firmer organizing principle for the work. I was also troubled by the tone of the advice to the reader regarding taking personal responsibility as well as the discussions of “intertribal criticism,” e.g. non-Jews discussing Jewish ritual circumcision. Both sections, while intended to assist the reader in dealing sensitively with other cultures and with his or her own beliefs and practices, ironically struck me as themselves a bit patronizing. As I read them I asked myself who the intended audience might be. They appear to address someone open enough to be interested in many of the author’s concerns, and yet unaware enough of many of the central considerations in such pursuits to need his advice. How many such people are there, and how many of those are likely to be reading this book?

At the cost of relatively little additional effort, Boyd could have created a book which would be more useful to readers with a more serious interest in the subject. For example, all cases listed in the summary of legal decisions are drawn from one issue of the NOCIRC Newsletter. Unless absolutely necessary, email and personal correspondence ought not be used as a citation due to the impossibility of verifying and locating the source; in several cases where a footnote cited an email message or an unpublished letter, documentable sources were apparently available.

And yet in the end, Boyd’s book proves to be an enjoyable, personalized, flawed yet unique contribution to the literature about circumcision. It is a quick, easy, engaging read, and may win the anti-circumcision movement new interest and new troops. While Ronald Goldman’s masterpiece Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma is likely to remain the definitive introductory overview of the subject for years or even decades, readers desiring a more idiosyncratic view of the topic would do well to delve into Billy Ray Boyd’s short, entertaining work.